x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Egyptians struggle to define their recent past

Coup or revolution? These are just two of the words that have split Egypt and muddied its political future for years to come. Analysis from Bradley Hope in Cairo

CAIRO // As Egypt gears up for duelling protests across the country today, it is clear the tumultuous events of the past month have left the country more divided than ever.

A large segment of the Egyptian public calls Mohammed Morsi's removal from the presidency by the military a second revolution, while another insists it was a coup.

At stake in this debate is the narrative that will shape the course of politics in Egypt for years to come.

The passionate, often heated discussions in cafes, dining rooms and squares across Egypt pivot around definitions of the most basic political concepts.

How does a new democracy function? What are legitimate means to remove unpopular presidents, especially in the absence of a parliament? And what role should the military play in a country's political transition? In searching for the root of Egypt's instability, many are returning to the question of what the 2011 revolution against Hosni Mubarak was really about.

"The revolution was not against Mubarak, but what exactly it was a revolution against is still under debate, and that is adding to the confusion," said Khaled Fahmy, a professor of history at the American University in Cairo. "When we rose in 2011 we opened up wounds that were the result of more than 60 years of bottled-up politics."

Tensions have escalated further in the past two weeks, with bombings and killings overshadowing constitutional amendment and preparations for new elections.

On Wednesday, Gen Abdel Fattah El Sisi called on Egyptians to hold mass demonstrations today to give him a "mandate" to confront "terrorism".

Essam El Erian, a Muslim Brotherhood official, said Gen El Sisi was pushing the country towards civil war.

The Brotherhood, of which Mr Morsi was formerly a top official, has refused to recognise the interim government and called on its supporters to hold non-stop protests until Mr Morsi is reinstated.

If not for US$12 billion (Dh44bn) of emergency aid from the UAE, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, the situation might well be even worse.

After more than two and a half years of instability, the country is sliding dangerously towards insolvency and life has become punishing for most people.

If anything, this predicament has intensified the debate here over how the Arab world's most populous nation arrived at this critical juncture.

The Brotherhood was indisputably the most organised group after Mubarak's resignation. After turning their grassroots welfare network into a powerful political machine, they dominated elections for parliament and the presidency.

The problem, Mr Fahmy said, was that the group's leaders were unprepared for executive power and badly mismanaged the country during one year in power.

"They showed that they had not evolved enough as a group to run the country," he said.

The military's rise to power again marked a part reversal of the gains from the 2011 uprising, since one of the popular demands in the months after Mubarak was placed under house arrest was for the military to return to its barracks so democracy could begin its work, Mr Fahmy said.

But Mr Morsi's removal was also a milestone in the "ongoing revolution" to build an inclusive democracy, establish rule of law that enshrines justice and equality, and restructure the economy so that growing wealth is better distributed among the population, he said.

Even before Mr Morsi was removed from power, the Brotherhood and its supporters have vehemently disagreed with this definition of "revolution".

In his last speech on June 26, the former president called on Egyptians to support him against what seemed to be an imminent military interference against "legitimacy". He used the word more than 70 times.

Officials such as Gehad El Haddad, a Brotherhood spokesman and son of one of the presidential aides being held by the military along with Mr Morsi, have refused to call the military's actions anything other than an anti-democratic coup.

The power of definition has risen to the point where many Egyptians immediately recognise another's political affiliation simply by how they describe the military's actions.

Articles by scholars who have sought to justify the use of the word "coup" have been criticised extensively on social networks by Egyptians who believe its use an insult against the millions of Egyptians who took to the streets to demonstrate against Mr Morsi.

Those in agreement with the military's decision to remove him from power have found an unexpected - and potentially unwanted - ally in former members of Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP), who have sought to cast the events of this year as being more important than the uprising in 2011.

Ali El Dean Hilal Dessouki, a former official in the NDP and professor of political science at Cairo University, said the removal of Mr Morsi was the first "exclusively internal Egyptian uprising".

"In both 2011 and 2013, the military forced the president to resign," Mr Dessouki said. "What was different in 2013 is that there were no foreign powers involved in the process."

Asked about foreign involvement in 2011, he said it was too early to tell what role the United States and other groups such as Hamas played in causing the Mubarak regime to collapse so quickly.

"I don't want to engage in conspiracy theories," Mr Dessouki said. "We need more information to make a decision on 2011."

He defended the use of the word "revolution" in describing the military's actions on July 3, saying many western commentators were focusing on the "minimalist meaning of democracy, where democracy only equals the ballot box".

"I argue that in the substantive definition of democracy, this was not a coup d'etat," Mr Dessouki said. "Even the founding fathers of the United States disagreed that voting was the only requirement. Democracy is also social justice, respect for civil rights and an independent judiciary."

Even with the future looking uncertain, recent events confirmed what he described as a historical truth.

"Democracy is, without a doubt, a destabilising process," he said.

bhope@thenational.ae

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